HARTFORD — Some epoxy resin on the floors, some lights in the ceiling, some medical marijuana on the shelves and a final state inspection are all that stand in the way of Med+Leaf opening its doors in Hartford.
It’s been more than three years since the idea of the medical marijuana provisioning center, or dispensary, where medical marijuana and medical marijuana-infused products are sold, was birthed by Janel Napier and Alex Von Koenig.
Med+Leaf, which is owned by Alex Von Koenig’s parents, Doug and Joelene Von Koenig, has had some bumps and hiccups along the way, but should be open by the end of this month.
Doug Von Koenig said what’s gotten them to this point has been perseverance.
Napier and the Von Koenigs started working on opening this store before Michigan released its medical marijuana licensing requirements, and have had to evolve with those requirements. Other issues came with construction on the store and a previous location that was too close to a church.
“There were some times we got hit with something that completely shattered us,” Napier said. “So it was definitely perseverance through all of that.”
Getting medical marijuana businesses up and running has been easy for some and difficult for others, but what unites them, they say, is their desire to serve the communities they’re in.
Med+Leaf chose Hartford due to the proximity to I-94 and the need of the people in the community.
Medical marijuana patients must have a doctor’s prescription and a card through the state of Michigan. According to Michigan’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, as of June there were 4,442 medical marijuana patients in Berrien County, 1,604 patients in Cass County and 2,524 patients in Van Buren County.
After Hartford, the closest other open medical marijuana dispensaries are in Buchanan, Bangor, Breedsville and Kalamazoo.
“In the very beginning we walked into Hartford and said ‘What do you think about medical marijuana?’” Alex Von Koenig said. “It was pretty rough at first. We shopped around at communities that had written ordinances, but Hartford was our main focus.”
He said getting Hartford to write and adopted its ordinance in November 2017 was the hardest part. After applying to them, and applying to the state, they started construction this summer in a vacant section of the Family Dollar store along West Main Street in Hartford.
Doug Von Koenig said Med+Leaf’s theme has always been to be more than a provisioning center.
“We intend to be one of the best small businesses in town,” he said. “We plan to promote the city and the other businesses downtown to bring people into the town.”
It also plans to employ Hartford residents first.
Bill Stohler, director of NoBo Michigan, said he and the company are excited to start employing Benton Harbor residents at its medical marijuana growing facility on its Alreco Road site. The facility, which will also serve as the company’s Midwest headquarters, is on track to open in April.
“Benton Harbor is nearest and dearest to our hearts so we’re putting a lot of focus on that,” he said.
Bangor’s downtown business district has seen an increase in patronage since two medical marijuana dispensaries have opened up there, according to City Manager Regina Hoover. And the city’s tax base is slowly increasing.
The city approved allowing medical marijuana facilities in Fall 2017. The Green Door, the first provisioning center, opened in December 2017.
Hoover said the city’s Downtown Development Authority saw an increase of about $1 million in tax revenue last year from the dispensaries. Another addition to the tax roll has been getting buildings built for medical marijuana grow and processing facilities on empty parcels at its industrial park.
“As those grow, we think the residential taxes will eventually show some improvement,” Hoover said. “People will be moving in here, and staying, for the jobs. There won’t be thousands of people coming into the city, but quite a few. We have reasonably priced and very affordable homes.”
She said the new businesses will allow the city’s Economic Development Corp. to put some money back into the community – money it hasn’t had to work with in the past.
A 420 Festival last April, hosted by The Green Door, was another stimulant to Bangor’s finances.
Hoover said the event’s vendors got together after the event to donate $100,000 to the city for its parks and police department funds.
“The businesses are very community minded,” she said. “They care about where they set up business. I recently was calling around to ask for some funding for the playground. Green Door gave me the largest contribution at the time. I didn’t expect that much, but they surprised me.”
Alex Von Koenig and Napier, who will serve as employees of Med+Leaf, were working at a Planet Fitness when they met.
“I came in one day talking about how I dreamed of opening a business in this industry and I hear this voice say ‘I want to do that,’” she said. “So that’s how we teamed up.”
Alex Von Koenig was a medical marijuana caregiver for a while, then the rules started coming out for licensing medical marijuana facilities.
“We started looking at the laws real close and the first thing you had to do was go to a city and ask them to write an ordinance, and some where already doing it,” Alex Von Koenig said.
Bigger cities were allowing facilities to operate in a sort of gray area, but for smaller communities, someone had to show interest.
“Hartford already had an ordinance that said you could run a medical marijuana dispensary, but you had to be a doctor,” Alex Von Koenig said. “So we walked in there and our question was, you have this ordinance on your books, but you don’t have one in your city, so we asked them to change it.”
Napier and the Von Koenigs attended city meeting after city meeting, eventually getting some interest and help from some of the Hartford city commissioners.
Stohler said NoBo Michigan has also experienced ups and downs in getting approval from Benton Harbor. He doesn’t blame the city.
“The hard part of most of these projects is going through the municipality step,” he said. “Municipalities have never done this before. It’s new to them and their staffs have not been trained on it. The state doesn’t offer training.”
Stohler said the municipalities are in uncharted territory.
“They might be leery of people coming into town saying they want to come into town,” he said. “Or some might hire their own experts to tell them what they should do. Some put trust in the state and some try to do it on their own.”
One of those communities that did it on their own was Bangor.
Hoover said city officials in Bangor went to work right away in forming a medical marijuana ordinance when it found out the state was releasing licensing rules.
“We wanted to get that in place so we could move forward on it,” she said. “I think we have so many facilities up and running is just the fact we moved on it. We have the traffic from M-43 and the buildings and land were available. We had the right place at the right time.”
Right now the city is working to draft a recreational marijuana facilities ordinance.
“We’re just working on caps for how many we will allow because we want them all to make a living,” Hoover said.
All of the marijuana facilities in Michigan will have to work together to supply patients and recreational users of the plant.
Growing facilities will have to have secure transporters take the plants to testing facilities and processing facilities, then to the dispensaries for sale.
Doug Von Koenig said what products Med+Leaf carries will depend on which suppliers have what products.
“Everybody is behind,” he said. “There’s more demand than there is product right now.”
What is it about marijuana?
Marijuana is one of the many topics consistently in the headlines that gets people riled up in Facebook comments, but why all of this interest around the topic?
Alex Von Koenig said he thinks it’s because of the mystery of it.
“I think everyone is interested, even the ones who don’t like it,” he said. “They want to know what it looks like and what’s going on.”
Doug Von Koenig points to the “reefer madness” of many people’s youths.
Napier said she thinks it’s because of the problems cities have had with hard drugs, like methamphetamine and heroin.
“Those drugs are harsh on people and marijuana has been around so long. You never hear stories of people dying from overdose on marijuana,” she said.
At least 10 municipalities in Southwest Michigan have opted in to allow medical marijuana facilities, while many more have not. Niles is the only community to date that has officially voted to allow recreational marijuana facilities. Bangor and Buchanan are working on drafting ordinances.
Hoover said she has invited municipal officials in Southwest Michigan to ask her how Bangor is doing.
“We haven’t seen anything that has made us regret moving forward or getting involved,” she said. “I’ve had people say they’re embarrassed to be from Bangor, but most people like that it’s regulated and right out in the open.”
Contact: anewman@TheHP.com, 932-0357, Twitter: @HPANewman